[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
WILLIAM WYLER: The Authorized Biography. By Axel Madsen. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 456 pages. $9.95.
CECIL B. DeMILLE. By Charles Higham. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 280 pages. $10.
LIGHT YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS. By Tay Garnett, with Fredda Dudley Balling. Foreword by Frank Capra. Arlington House. 347 pages. $9.95.
A SHORT TIME FOR INSANITY: An Autobiography. By William A. Wellman. Foreword by Richard Schickel. Hawthorn Books, Inc. 276 pages. $10.
Books on directors’ oeuvres are nothing new, and neither are interviews with film directors, booklength and otherwise. But it’s only recently that directors’ lives have struck publishers as likely material. Undoubtedly the popularity of Frank Capra’s The Name above the Title has been the most persuasive argument. Recently I’ve read four new additions to the genre, two biographies—one living subject, one deceased—one as-told-to autobiography, and one of the real McCoy, a personal document that in its idiosyncratic way is as valuable an addition to film literature as Capra’s. The order is that of the above titles, and I’ll talk about them in the same sequence.
The virtues of Axel Madsen’s William Wyler tend to become more evident after one has read Charles Higham’s Cecil B. DeMille. Both seem to be job books. Madsen gets off to a limp start condensing the erratic history of Mulhouse, the Alsace town where Willy Wyler was born in 1902, and dreaming up trite images like Leopold the father “sitting on the veranda and watching his blue cigar smoke disappear into the night” shortly before World War I became a neighborhood reality. As soon as his subject is of an age to store up his own memories for recounting five decades later, the narrative improves. Mulhouse (then Mülhausen) changing hands—and switching from German to French time—four times during August 1914; Willy following his elder brother Robert (later his producer, and a director in France) to school in Lausanne, and Robert following him to Paris; experiences with haberdashery and whores; and finally, an offer of employment from cousin Carl Lämmle—in America, Laemmle—head of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. His film career began in New York, toting interoffice memos and cans of film, but he and fellow expatriate Paul Kohner soon established Universal’s foreign-language publicity service translating into German and French publicity stories written in the Hollywood offices and, when necessary, making up their own.